These autos refuse to age - they just repair themselves

Another new car dealer has gone bust trying to sell the latest models. One can hardly be surprised, as pre-owned vehicles look factory fresh.

The secret is in the new DentFree body panels, which lose scratches and marks in a matter of hours, and repair dings and dents overnight.

Based on the latest smart organic polymers from DuPont, these panels are made of self-healing materials that react to cracks and scratches.

Gel molecules ooze up microscopic pathways, fill the gaps, and solidify into a smooth new coating; dents and dings return to their original shape using ‘memory effect’ lattices.

The original shape is coded into the organic DNA. Even the gleaming paintwork is auto cleaning, repelling foreign dust and debris, and creating its own surface tension for that just sprayed look.

The car’s interior is no less smart. Tiny rips and tears in the seat cloth just disappear, while the dash remains gleaming no matter how long it’s been parked in the sun.

No wonder the FBI is calling for genetic ‘fingerprinting’ of every new car. It’s the only way to tell if a car is new, or just looks like new.

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

Plastic That Heals Itself
“To test the material, the researchers bend it and crack the polymer coating. The crack spreads down through the coating and reaches the underlying microchannel. This prompts the healing agent to “whip through the channels and into the crack,” Sottos says. There, it comes into contact with the catalyst and, in about 10 hours, becomes a polymer and fills in the crack. The system does not need any external pressure to push the healing agent into the crack. Instead, the liquid moves through the narrow channels just as water moves up a straw.”

– Technology Review

With advances in ‘smart’ materials, that can retain their shape, even repair themselves, we are approaching the age of truly durable goods. Clothes that stay clean and uncreased, cars that are always shiny and new, and ultimately, self-assembling gadgets and homes that build themselves.

The innovation that heralds these new products is the combination of nanotech molecular design and biological construction of materials and components. Once the two approaches find synergistic synthesis, we will have a plethora of smart objects and goods that address real everyday problems. If the science becomes economically viable, cars that repair themselves will be on every street.

Of course, shape memory materials have been around for decades, with the original shape memory alloy, nickel-titanium, being discovered by the US Navy in the 1960s. However, most of these alloys need considerable temperature to be applied to them to return to their original shape.

Attention has shifted to plastics and polymers, and ‘super-elasticity’. In China, the Shape Memory Textile Center is developing clothes that return to their original shape when washed in hot water. Car bumpers have been made that ‘bounce back’ into shape when deformed.

But materials that reform themselves after damage, returning to their designed shape and texture, and repairing their surfaces, are still something for the future, or are they?

2001: Shape shifting plastics
MIT engineers develop biodegradable polymers that can be deformed and reformed using heat.

2005: Photo-sensitive polymers
Further developments by MIT scientists create polymers that can be morphed into different shapes with ultra-violet light, and then returned to their original shape with a different UV wavelength.

The applications for this technology are obvious: Park your car outdoors, or hang your clothes up to dry, and the sunlight will help remove blemishes and straighten them out.

2007: Self-healing coatings
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) make a polymer material that can heal itself repeatedly when it cracks.
“This is the first time anyone has made a material that can repair itself multiple times without any external intervention,” says Nancy Sottos, materials-science and engineering professor at UIUC and one of the researchers who led the work.
“It’s essentially like giving life to a plastic,” says Chris Bielawski, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The ultimate goal would be to create materials that mend themselves, he says, and “this is an amazing proof of concept.”

2009: Smart clothing
Hong Kong comes to the market with their super-smart suits – just put them in the ‘hotbox’ and they come out looking like new. The hotbox is little more than a garment sized microwave oven, but it does the trick – after two minutes the fibres regain their shape, shedding dirt and dust in the process.

2012: Self-repairing cars
Those dings and scratches you picked up in the parking lot? Gone by tomorrow morning, and at no cost in money or effort. If you’re involved in a bumper-bashing, you might have to let your car ‘sleep’ in the garage for a few days, but then it will be as good as new again.
Sounds like science fiction? No, it’s the new auto-repair autobody kit from DentFree. Pimp your ride with these body panels and you’ll never have to visit the paint-shop again.
The trouble starts when ‘Honest Al’ decides the car is just like new, and sells it as a new car. Who would know? Luckily the organic polymers carry a DNA marker, and can be uniquely identified.
On the other hand, as cars take longer and longer to age, owners are less eager to trade up, and the long term impact on the auto industry will be profound.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.